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Bills Aimed at Getting Women in STEM Fields Are Incomplete Without Funding: Experts

"They are hurting for getting good women in STEM disciplines," one expert said

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    Bills Aimed at Getting Women in STEM Fields Are Incomplete Without Funding: Experts
    Getty/Natali_Mis
    File photo - A pair of bills aimed at encouraging women to get into STEM fields were signed by President Donald Trump last week.

    Two new bills that aim to promote women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields are a positive step forward, but they don’t quite cut it, experts say.

    The bills, recently signed by President Donald Trump, authorize the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA to use existing programs and resources to recruit women.

    But existing programs are underfunded, according to some women working in what are known as the STEM fields, and the two bills do not allocate funding toward the organizations they cover. And without appropriate funding, some say, the mission of the bills is diminished.

    "It’s good to see backing of these programs, and to have both congress and the president support them, but the devil is in the details," said Dr. Alice Agogino, a professor of engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. "And so, it’s really important what the action item will be."

    She questioned whether there would be a supplemental budget associated with the bills.

    The first bill, H.R. 255 or the "Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act" was introduced by Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) and co-authored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA) to "[authorize] the National Science Foundation to use its entrepreneurial programs to recruit and support women to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and into the commercial world."

    Following the bill’s signing, Esty, in a statement said, "No matter how contentious or passionate our political disagreements may get, as representatives for the American people, we must never stop working toward common solutions that will improve people’s lives."

    She said that the passage of the bills will "help women from all walks of life break into fields where they have been underrepresented."

    The second bill, H.R. 321, or the "Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act," was co-authored by Esty and introduced by Comstock.

    The bill "calls on NASA to encourage girls and young women to pursue careers in aerospace. In particular, it directs NASA to encourage women to enter the STEM fields through three existing programs: NASA Girls, Aspire to Inspire, and the Summer Institute in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research," according to a news release from Esty’s office.

    Comstock in a statement said that young women will now have greater opportunities to pursue careers in STEM fields.

    "The INSPIRE Women Act is bipartisan legislation that authorizes NASA to encourage young women to study the STEM fields and to pursue careers that will further advance America’s space missions and the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act also promotes women and jobs in STEM fields," she said.

    Both bills received bipartisan backing, and Committee on Science, Space and Technology Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), voiced support for both measures following their signing.

    "I believe the INSPIRE Women Act and the Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act will help encourage more talented young women to pursue their dreams, and change the world with their ideas," he said.

    "It’s important that the president continues to support this bill, and that he recognizes that [we] do still need to keep working to increase the representation of women in the STEM fields," said Dr. Stefanie Kroll, an assistant research professor at Drexel University.

    Kroll, who is also the project science director for the Delaware River Watershed Initiative at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, said that without specific grant programs or funding for programs, the bills won’t accomplish what they’re meant to do.

    The White House and Esty did not immediately reply to requests for comment on whether there would be additional funding for programs aimed at promoting women in STEM.

    In an emailed statement to NBC, NASA voiced support for the INSPIRE act.

    "NASA has been and remains committed to encouraging more women to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields of study and employment," the statement said. "The agency supports the goals of the INSPIRE Act and will look to expand our existing successful external outreach activities. We also appreciate the growing number of private citizens who help share NASA’s exciting story of exploration and discovery."

    According to a NASA spokeswoman, the organization already has programs aimed at promoting women in STEM, but she said there is no new plan yet in regard to the INSPIRE Women Act.

    According to the text of the bill, the NASA Administrator must submit to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation "a plan for how NASA can best facilitate and support both current and retired astronauts, scientists, engineers, and innovators, including early career female astronauts, scientists, engineers, and innovators, to engage with K–12 female STEM students and inspire the next generation of women to consider participating in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and to pursue careers in aerospace."

    In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Comstock said, "We will get more info from NASA, and Congress will, of course, have the ability to seek more resources based on that report. The Congresswoman is in support of funding increases for NASA and in the STEM fields."

    While signing the bills, Trump said it’s unacceptable that so many women have degrees in STEM fields, but aren’t employed. He said he thinks that will change, though.

    "We need policies that help support women in the workforce, and that's really very much going to be addressed by my administration over the years, and to get more and more of these bills coming out, and address the barriers faced by female and those in STEM fields," Trump said. "We want American women who graduate from college with STEM degrees to be able to get STEM jobs that can support their families and help these American women to live out the American Dream, which they are so qualified to live out."

    The NSF in a statement said it is committed to creating opportunities for women, and said the legislation reinforces current activities.

    "One example of such NSF activities includes the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which seeks to transform scientific discovery into benefits for society by catalyzing the commercialization of innovations. SBIR fosters and encourages participation by women-owned small businesses," the statement said.

    While signing the bills, Trump also commented on offshoring--when a business bases some of its services overseas for lower costs, or a more favorable economy--which he’s brought up repeatedly in the past in relation to U.S. jobs.

    "Protecting women with STEM degrees, and all Americans with STEM degrees is very important, but it also means you have to crack down on offshoring, because the offshoring is a tremendous problem that displaces many of our best American workers and brains -- the brain power," he said.

    The bills were applauded by many, including Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, who has been vocal about supporting women since her father first began his presidential campaign.

    The Association of American Universities, which represents 62 different research universities in the United States and Canada, also praised the bills on Twitter.

    Margaret Hart, a STEM Outreach Adviser at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, said legislation promoting or creating programs that encourage women to enter STEM fields is a great thing.

    "Introducing young students to science and engaging and getting them really experience [it] is what’s going to help increase the number of women that go into, and hopefully stay in, STEM" she said.

    Another issue brought up by Kroll is a lack of jobs in her field: environmental science.

    "I think at the university level, and the masters level, I have seen a lot more women trained in the sciences," she said. "I think part of the problem now, at least in the environmental field, [is that] there have been hiring freezes and changes in agency policies."

    On the other hand, Agogino said, "They are hurting for getting good women in STEM disciplines."

    Experts said that the STEM fields have seen improvements throughout the years in regard to female involvement, however they believe there are issues that still need to be addressed.

    Agogino discussed the idea of a "chilly climate" toward women in STEM, and said that it has to be tackled when trying achieve to goals of inspiring and encouraging women to work in STEM fields.

    "What’s troubling is the almost renewal of explicit bias that we are seeing today," she said, pointing to sexual harassment as an example.

    Hart, who works with young women in the Johns Hopkins’ Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program, said that she hasn’t heard feedback of women feeling awkward in the field, but said, "Hopefully the more young girls we can get interested in the field, it can help curb that."

    Agogino, who has been honored with a lifetime mentoring award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said mentoring is vital when it comes to STEM.

    "We also need to have the leadership that takes gender into consideration all steps along the way," she said.

    Kroll has similar beliefs to Agogino. She said mentorship seems to be the thing that really gets women to stick with STEM professions.

    "It’s the duty of most scientists to promote excellent students, both male and female," she said. But, they should keep in mind that mentorship of someone may encourage them to stay within STEM, Kroll added.